Sunday 3 February 2013

Is there is cloud to the Savile exposé silverlining?

Few people can be unaware of last years documentary which exposed Jimmy Savile as a predatory paedophile, and has subsequently helped in unearthing a huge amount of child sexual abuse.
The Savile (no one seems to call him Jimmy anymore) program has now been nominated in two Royal Television Society Award categories . Current Affairs - Home and Scoop of the Year. Mark Williams Thomas (MWT) tweeted this and I was prompted to respond, somewhat flippantly on reflection, that it would feel ‘grubby’ to win an award on the back of child abuse.

I then found myself in debate (not with MWT) regarding my comment and it was suggested that I was focusing on the child abuse and not the ‘tireless work’ MWT had done to expose it. Further more I was tainting MWT achievement by suggesting he was in ‘cahoots with the abuse’.

My position was that exposing child abuse to the general public by means of TV documentary is not necessary and that there other ways to deal with child sexual abuse. This other way I refer to is alerting the appropriate authorities and allowing due process. This argument was countered by the fact, and it is a fact, that this route had not been successful and thus allowed Savile et al to abuse for 30 years.

I am not seeking to attack MWT or the work he does. I am seeking to understand my reaction to the program and the subsequent award nomination. I would also very much like to encourage the views of others, both on my reaction and their views in general. If you are reading this please comment, I enjoy the debate and am eager to learn from the views of others.

Following the Savile show I believe child sexual abuse has become a cause célèbre. I do not believe that was the intent of the show and I do believe the original show was a serious piece of journalism… but much of what has followed is not.

For weeks following the show it was impossible to watch any news bulletin without viewing images of Savile leering at children. Other celebrities and high profile figures such as politicians have also been implicated and of course the BBC. The ‘story’ had all the ingredients for a media feeding frenzy and the media did not disappoint. Amongst all of that there were of course the victims of Savile, who had found a voice and were finally being listened to.

The relationship between the media and agencies involved in child sexual abuse is frequently an uneasy one. The Savile exposé has caused me to reflect on this unease and I can see that MWT’s hard work has reaped very tangible results. However, I struggle with the way this was achieved i.e releasing the findings to the general public thereby forcing the hand of agencies who hither to appeared to ignore the allegations. This ‘dropping a bombshell’ method is effective and I assume the argument is that the ends justify the means. But I am left asking before dropping the bombshell what did MWT and his team try first to address the serious issues they uncovered? The answer I came up (and I stand to be corrected) is not much. After all, their job is to make a TV documentary, and in this case although the documentary was about past events it was clearly seeking to influence future ones. MWT was not getting paid to expose child abuse, he was paid to produce a documentary. I want to reiterate that I am not attacking MWT, I believe he is an expert in his field and has produced some fine work. This is about my reaction to his work and the questions it has raised for me about the role of the media in delicate issues such as child sexual abuse.

In writing this I come to the conclusion that the central question for me is;

What are the ‘ends’ that were achieved and do they justify the means?

Apparently since the Savile exposé so many people have now come forward to report child abuse that it has led to the Norfolk Police Commissioner commenting that council tax will have to rise to deal with soaring demand. That is a claim which I find astonishing and tend to agree with MTW’s view that it actually illustrates a problem with cuts to Police funding, not with his program.

Nevertheless it does prove that the documentary has empowered many victims to speak up and report abuse. The fact that the Police are inundated illustrates that the voices of the abused are being heard. But I believe it these voices are reduced to a whisper by the loudest voices, which are those who seek to apportion blame for what has happened, in the name of understanding and preventing such events occurring again.

Clearly there is important work to be done in this area, but if the loud voices win the day and significant Police resources are focused in this area what becomes of the majority of victims of child sexual abuse who are not abused by celebrities, but by parents, relatives and family friends? As the NSPCC point out "The majority of perpetrators sexually assault children known to them, with about 80% of offences taking place in the home of either the offender or the victim." Does the current media obsession with celebrity abusers directly caused by the Savile exposé help parents protect their children and children protect themselves? I would say that it does not. In fact I would go so far as to say it is in danger of taking us back to the days of ‘stranger danger’ and the vision of the ‘dirty old man’ lurking by the playground.

This brings me to the conclusion that Mark Thomas Williams’ work has been a benefit to historical victims of child sexual abuse and for that we should applaud him. However, the by-product of the documentary has been a refocusing of the public and certain professions, awareness of child abuse, away from the most likely offenders and towards stranger (celebrity) danger.

I am struggling to see where this is helping current or future victims who statistically will not be abused by a stranger or celebrity, but by a person they know. This, I believe, is an unintended consequence of the massive media interest in Jimmy Savile and Operations Yewtree and Fernbridge.

And to my initial gut reaction of saying that getting an award on the back of child abuse was ‘grubby’. It was a flippant comment, but on reflection I stand by it. I would say that I think MWT’s intentions were honest enough; he wanted to expose a highly regarded celebrity as the man he really was and provide a voice for his victims. But this was only ever achievable via a TV show and it was always going to be headline grabbing and salacious, in short it was entertainment. And now it is it being nominated for awards I wonder if any of Savile’s victims get to go the award ceremony?

Sunday 27 January 2013

The Big Question?

How about a few simplistic, but big questions about social work?

  • How do we measure success in Children’s Social Work?

  • What is a good outcome for a child and their family?

  • Is our role to make a child happy?

Sometimes there is an obvious need to intervene in a situation. Consider the following case study; over chastisement of a 15 year old child who lives with their mother and stepfather. The over chastisement constitutes an assault on the child, the stepfather is the perpetrator. Children’s Services and Police intervene and the stepfather is arrested and charged; subsequently the child goes to live with their father and is therefore protected from the abusive stepfather.

On the face of it, a good outcome for the child as they are no longer at risk of physical abuse, but is that the end of the story? What if despite the physical abuse the child tells you they were happier with their mother and stepfather?

This raises a number of questions;

  • Firstly, can we accept that it is possible that living in an abusive home could be a ‘happier’ childhood (perhaps ‘not as sad’ is more appropriate)?

  • Secondly if we could accept a child living in a home where they have been assaulted how could it be managed?

  • Thirdly I would argue that the best outcome is ‘safe and happy’, but clearly there are degrees of both, is there an acceptably low level of ‘safe’ which is balanced by a child saying they are ‘happy’?

When we consider issues of risk are we always focusing on what is best the best outcome for the child? Or do we have a question about how the situation might look if we took a risk and something went wrong? Are we actually considering what is the best outcome for the child and me (the social worker)?

I was recently involved in a decision which saw a child removed from a placement which were happy and doing well in. We had identified a risk to the child in placement, not of direct harm, but the risk of being accused of something by a member of the foster carers family. I believe the probable damage caused by moving the child far outweighs the risk of living there. However, once we were aware of the risk (a risk which could not be negated for various reasons) we had to act on it. I am still wondering in whose interests we acted? We have protected that child from risk, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. 
I have long believed (somewhat sadly) that it is not my primary role to make children happy. I believe my job is to protect a child from harm and sometimes this makes the child happy… but not always! And this brings me back to my case study and the question of acceptable levels of risk. Would I live with the risk to make a child happy?

In amongst this, and perhaps always lurking in the back of all our minds is Ofsted, who’s tagline of ‘raising standards improving lives’ seems ridiculous when applied to Social Work.

I have never met a child whose life was improved by the timely completion of an assessment. Sure a decent analysis in an assessment helps inform interventions, but to my mind Ofsted inspections don’t even lightly scuff the surface of our work, let alone scratch it. Ofsted’s measurement of success is so narrow in its focus as to render it useless. Sure we need someone to keep an eye on us, but to call a Local Authority ‘failing’ or ‘outstanding’ on what they find is insulting to everyone, the Local Authority, the families we work with and the taxpayer . 
I don’t think the government have a clue what constitutes success in social work so they came up with some half arsed time scales and a quick look around the basics of what we do and then tell us we are ‘outstanding’.

Surely the answer to the question about what counts as success in social work is with the people we work for… children. And I ask you to consider this. we gain their views as part of our assessments, we act on them when we can, but will we take a risk for a child to make them happy?

Wednesday 2 January 2013

C’mon Eileen!

It’s new years day and in the Independent Sarah Cassidy reports on Eileen’s latest musings on Social Work post Rotherham Ukip debacle.

Eileen feels that we look like idiots because there is a culture of secrecy within Social Work and therefore we do not explain our decisions.

It would appear that Eileen was prompted to draw this conclusion from what happened in Rotherham and the fact that she hasn’t read the reasoning for the decision. I doubt she reads my blog, but Eileen if you are have a little look at this piece from the Guardian’s website on November 30th
I’m not surprised she didn’t read it, the media were already getting bored with the story and there was no interest in the actual facts of the decision so not much coverage was given to evening the story up. I am a little surprised that she didn’t take the time to check though before talking to the Independent. 
I can’t quite work out Sarah Cassidy’s piece because although it feels like yet another attack I do not believe that is what Dame Professor Monro intended. I think what Lady Professor Monro meant when she said Social Workers should be more transparent was, Local Authorities should be more transparent about the decisions Social Workers carry out on their behalf. I am sure Baroness Professor Monro realises that no Social Worker could talk to the media directly about a case.

I also feel confident that she did not mean to once again mention ‘Baby P’ and Khyra Ishaq and to define our entire profession by the failures in these cases.

Overall I do not believe for one moment that High Priestess Professor Monro made blindingly obvious, but slightly misinformed comments to the press in order to maintain her public profile. I’m just not sure what the point of her comments were though… answers on a postcard please

Tuesday 11 December 2012

I'm a celebrity, sit me down here

Ofsted will release the official statistics for outcomes of local authority Children’s Services inspections on 24th January 2013.  

Last year the banner headline from Ofsted was ‘The majority of local authorities are providing good services for local children and young people. Interestingly Ofsted chose to frame their findings in a positive light rather than focusing on the 15 councils identified as poor performers.
Given the ever present furore around Social Work it seems unlikely that Ofsted will be so charitable this year. Since the Saville scandal broke there has been one negative story after another and a queue of politicians and TV personalities happy to perpetuate the suggestion that we are incompetent.

Highlights (lowlights?) in the tsunami of bile aimed at our profession were;

  • Mr Gove’s speech and in which he revealed such an astonishing lack of understanding of what we do that it hard to believe he has ever met a service user or Social Worker.

  • Josh Macalister's ‘Frontline’ proposal, which offers answers to a problem that in my opinion does not exist.

  • The Rotherham UKIP ‘scandal’, so many had so much to say about it, but so few felt the need to retract or apologise for what they said when the truth emerged.

Regardless of what Ofsted find or how they seek to frame it, the public perception of Social Work continues on a downward trajectory. To compound this we are fighting the battle of perception on more than one front. There is the public perception of Social Workers and there is the professional/political perception. These different perceptions are symbiotic and influence and inform each other. We have seen this acutely brought into focus by Mr Gove’s speech which illustrates he was almost entirely barren of reasoned opinion on Social Work whilst simultaneously quoting Lord Carlisle and Eileen Munro at us. What is it they say? ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

To address the public perception there are frequent calls to get more positive stories out in the press about Social Work, a call I have reflected on many times. I have come to the conclusion that the answer to our public image problem is not about getting stories of positive outcomes from Social Work interactions in the media. The simple reason for this is that no one cares. I cannot imagine any newsroom (even at a local level) would run a story about how a Social Worker intervened and prevented… well you don’t what was prevented if it didn’t happen.
We need to think differently, individual success stories are not that interesting to the public. Even when they are wonderful tales of Looked After Children who have prospered in care or families we have helped to turn around. There is a time and place to celebrate these successes, but for the most part the general public are not interested.

So what do I think would help? I am almost tempted not to write this, because I find the answer so unpalatable. But I want to spark debate so I’ll take a deep breath and just write it.

I think we need to engage with the public on a macro non-specific level (trying to make it palatable here). The key to the problem is we need to be sitting down more. We need sit down next Lorraine Kelly on her couch, and sit down on the ‘This Morning’ couch, let’s also sit down with the ‘Loose Women’ and maybe even ‘gulp’ … Jeremy Kyle. In short we need to be on any TV show which covers the area’s that we do in our profession. We need to be accessible to the public, we need to engage with them and we need them to like us.

Wanting the public to like us is perhaps a slightly strange concept. Frequently in child protection you will hear a Social Worker say ‘you don’t do this job to make friends’ or ‘it’s not about people liking you'. I think for the most part that is true, but I believe that if we want to improve our public image it is vital we separate doing the job from our public image. Again this may sound counter intuitive, but if the two things were linked then we wouldn’t have a public image problem. I say this because the overwhelming weight of what we do does not result in tragedy and if our public image was about what we do then the general public would value us. But we are not judged on what we do every day, we are judged on what is reported when what we do leads to a tragedy.

So back to sitting down with people on daytime TV. I’m not suggesting this will deal with all our problems, but I do think it will give social work a more positive exposure to a mass audience. If you speak to the general public about social work it won’t be long before they mention ‘Baby P’ or Victoria Climbié. I am suggesting that if we were on daytime TV there may be other images of social work they can identify with. I think we need celebrity Social Workers, like there are celebrity doctors.

As an example consider the recent media frenzy over the Rotherham UKIP foster carers. This was splashed all over the media and there was almost universal condemnation of the decision. Imagine the celebrity Social Worker talking over the incident with someone like Lorraine Kelly or one of the other daytime presenters. It would not be that difficult for them to at least put the opinion across that there was probably more to the story than was being reported. This message could reach a mass audience in a way that Newsnight never could.

There may be those amongst who may feel that social work and daytime TV are strange bedfellows. You may feel it would be wrong to associate ourselves with this element of the media. I know I felt that way when I first thought of this. But why shouldn’t we engage with Lorraine Kelly et al? Are we above this? Doctors aren’t above it, psychologists aren’t above it and importantly a large section of society isn’t above watching it. Tony Blair and David Cameron both recognised the value of appearances on daytime TV (it backfired on Cameron, but Philip Schofield was forced to apologise). We need to wise up as a profession and realise that if we do not define what our profession does to the general public then others will do it for us, and it will seldom be fair or balanced. Daytime TV is one way we can get a positive message to a mass audiance. Think about how many times you've done a visit and that odious toad is on the TV? I'm not talking about Michael Gove, I refer to Jeremy Kyle of course!


Saturday 8 December 2012

Put up or shut up.

It's time for people to choose what they care about.

Recent events have sparked a tidal wave of media and political interest in child protection. I think it is safe to say that the vast majority of the population have a default position of caring about the welfare of children. But my point is, once again the population has become vocal about the protection of children.

The current coalition government is weak, according to figures from the 7th December 2012 the Conservative Party is 10 points behind Labour in the polls and the Lib Dems are only 1 point ahead of UKIP.
A weak government will look for ways to increase its popularity and as such they will be taking note of the public interest in Child Protection. You can witness this by the ludicrous comments Michael Gove made about the situation in Rotherham, branding the Rotherham metropolitan borough council’s decision ’indefensible’ without bothering to find out the truth of the matter. One can only assume that all Mr Gove had to do was make a call and he would have be availed of the facts. Instead he chose to join the squawking right-wing press and attack the Local Authority in a lame attempt at currying favour with the electorate. Incidentally as recently as 4 days ago he was still refusing to apologise.

The government is turning its beady eye on our profession, although judging by Mr Gove’s lack of understanding, his beady eye needs even stronger pair glasses that it already has (you can read my thoughts on his speech here). And at the risk of stating the obvious, Children’s Services are not free, they have to be paid for. However, like roads, public toilets, parks and of course the NHS, Children’s Services are free at the point of delivery (anyone thinking of toll roads and toilets you have pay for, stop being difficult). We are so accustomed to these things that they are viewed as necessities but, as many people from countries less fortunate than our own will tell you, they are luxuries. To illustrate this, although safety features, you will not find Safeguarding children on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Taking another casual stroll into the ‘obvious’ Child Protection is paid for via taxes and nobody welcomes tax. But people are awkward sods, so even though they don’t want to pay they complain when they feel there is a problem. One of the few things which has not risen is the price of Council Tax. But it appears that the general public are unable or unwilling, to consider that this translates to less social workers, which in turn leads to higher caseloads, which inevitably leads to less thorough assessments and higher thresholds for child protection. All of these things have a tendency to lead the kinds of mistakes that can have terrible consequences for children. 
And as much as the general public are upset by the reports of our shortcomings, we are the ones dealing with it on a first hand basis. Do they think we don't care, do they believe that we go home at night and sleep knowing that we have left children in potentially harmful situations? There was a tragedy in the team I work in just over 6 years ago. There are no members of the team from back then still here, but still it influences us and the other professionals we work with. The general public care for a while, but we continue to care years after they forget the names they read about.

I am not suggesting the general public should mourn the loss of a children for years to come. I am also not looking for sympathy for our professional. I am looking for an understanding that this isn’t just a job to us and that the overwhelming majority of decisions and interventions we make are for good and honest reasons. When we make mistakes we do so because we are human. As Alexander Pope said ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine‘.

So we know that the general public are financially squeezed and they don't want to pay more tax. We also know they don't want their day spoiled by a terrible story in the media of a child tragedy. But can they have it both ways? Can Social Work be starved of money and still provide a great service? Can you drive a Bentley if you're only prepared to pay for a Kia? No, of course you can't!

I would also like the general public not to forget that ‘free at the point of delivery’ does not just mean ‘free’. You have to pay in advance, essentially its a bit of gamble, a kind of 'pay now, get it later if you need it' offer. But if the general public want the odds in this gamble stacked in favour of children then they should place their chips with us, we will make good use of them.

So my call to the men and women in the street is a simple one, if you really care about Child Protection then pay up, its not free. Let this government know that you don’t want more cuts in services. Remind them that we live in a capitalist society, 'ya pay your money, ya make ya choice'. We’re not asking for more pay, we’re not seeking to line our pockets, we just want, no NEED, more resources, so we can have the time to do our job in a safe and efficient manner.

Monday 3 December 2012

A word on commenting

Having spent some time without many comments my most recent post before this one attracted a number of comments.

Initially I responded to the comments which were exclusively challenging me about Social Work and Social Workers. 

However it became apparent that the majority of the challenges were not relating to the post but simply challenging Social Work and Workers in general.

Whilst I welcome challenges on what I write, I will not permit this blog to become a free-for-all attack on Social Work.

This does not mean that I will delete all negative comments, it does mean that any comments which do not relate to the post they are commenting on will be deleted. 

Sunday 2 December 2012

Sacrifice the few to protect the many?

The row sparked by The Telegraph and the story (I use that word advisedly) that they ran regarding Rotherham and the removal of foster children from UKIP voting parents has provoked some interesting debate.

I do not refer to the obvious debate regarding the rights and wrongs of what happened in Rotherham, but instead the debate about the response to the story.

The Guardian has printed a fuller account of why the children were removed from their parents and subsequently removed from their foster carers. In doing so they vindicated the Rotherham decision but also revealed a lot of sensitive information about the children.

Concerns have been raised about the children in this row and how this further information release may effect them. These are valid concerns and whatever else we do we must always remember our job is first and foremost to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our service users.

But I believe there is a bigger picture here. For as long as I can remember the vast majority of negative press about social work intervention is not countered. A story will hit the press and it will be detailed, the detail will be damning to the social workers and/or Local Authority. The Local Authority will issue a press release which will (can)not go into detail and essentially what we get is a weak rebuttal of the original story. Often as social workers we are able to read between the lines of the story and form a view about what may have happened, the general public are not able to do this. Chalk up another point for those who seek to attack our profession.

Another area where the public image of our profession is tarnished are shows (radio and tv) where members of the general public tell their stories of social work interventions in their lives. I have listened to many accounts on radio phone-ins of children that have been removed for seemingly no good reason from loving parents. I have then listened to the outpouring of sympathy for the parents. The parents recounting these accounts do so safe in the knowledge that they can pretty much say what they want without fear of breaching data protection or slander laws. If by some miracle the social workers involved in these cases were listening to the radio phone-in they could not counter the allegations because they know that aside from any data protection law there may be emotional harm to the children by dragging up the detail.

As a profession we normally maintain either a dignified silence (endlessly interpreted as being secretive) or we talk in general terms and as such our counter arguments are poor. We do so knowing that have protected children, but that protection is at a cost to our professional reputations. ‘So what?’ you may ask, ‘at least the children are protected’.

I believe that our professional reputation has been so eroded that it seriously effects our ability to carry out our work. We need the trust and mutual respect of the families we work with to plan and implement effective interventions. If a family does not trust us, or value the help we attempt to provide, this does not make the situation safer for children. We cannot form partnerships with parents and we cannot prevent bad situations getting worse.

Essential in our role is empowerment. We seek to empower families with our interventions with the end goal of improving the lives of children. The erosion of professional reputation is empowering people, but it is empowering them to resist our help.

This situation is bad enough, but now we are beginning to hear calls from those in power to bring children into the care system earlier. Mr Gove tells us we should be intervening earlier to prevent harm to children, we should stop giving bad parents chances and remove their children.

This is now a two pronged attack on families. Firstly they resist our help, spurred on by the perception that basically we do not know what we are doing. Secondly we are pushed to remove children sooner and as a result of families resisting early intervention this will possibly be the right thing to do.

The end result of this is a lot of empowered families finding that their strength to resist our early intervention has led to them losing their children.

The Children Act (1989) makes the child’s welfare paramount. But the spirit of the act is about preserving the family unit and removal is the last resort. We are now in a discussion where removal is not the last resort, indeed it feels that early intervention will become about removing the child. Strange coming from a right wing government which would traditionally be running away from state intervention in the family. I can only conclude it is a populist, knee-jerk reaction to the various child abuse scandals which have recently surfaced involving high profile public figures.

Coming back to the original point of this post I believe that Rotherham were right to release the details of what happened. I think we need to look at the bigger picture and understand that if we do not defend the decisions we make with detail, our profession will be so damaged that will not be able to do our job.

The risk of emotional harm to the ‘few’ is one that has to be taken if we are to protect the welfare of the ‘many’. And let us not forget it is never the profession of social work which takes these stories to a wider public audience.